A disaffected food-cart vendor from Queens who once had designs on bombing the city subways, Najibullah Zazi has been referred to by everyone from Islamic terror-hawk Congressman Peter King to Obama White House Attorney General Eric Holder as the prototypical homegrown terrorist—a legal U.S. resident ready, willing, and able to play a major role in the next 9/11. Born in Afghanistan in 1985, Zazi lived in Pakistan for a time before coming to New York with his family when he was 14. His father was a cabdriver, and Zazi was a quiet presence at his local mosque and a poor student at Flushing High School. He dropped out and worked at the family’s coffee-and-doughnut cart near Wall Street. In his early twenties, he traveled to Pakistan for an arranged marriage, fathered two children on visits there, and returned to New York to raise money for his family—but spiraled into credit-card debt and eventually declared bankruptcy. Radicalized, it appears, by the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Zazi and, allegedly, two friends went to Pakistan in 2008 to try to join the Taliban. It was there that he was tapped by Al Qaeda and trained to set off bombs back in America.
In its broad strokes, Zazi’s story is a modern Manchurian Candidate tale: a fully legal U.S. resident with no criminal record, secretly programmed abroad by the enemy to attack New York and martyr himself. Other attackers Stateside have been similarly self-motivated (like would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and the alleged Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan), but only Zazi received formal training and specific directives from Al Qaeda. His explosive of choice was triacetone triperoxide, akin to the one used in the 2005 London tube bombings. Arrested in 2009 not long after renting a car outside Denver, Zazi pleaded guilty in 2010 to the charge of “conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction,” among others, and the Obama administration described the plot as proof positive, if there were still any doubt, that Al Qaeda was plotting another 9/11-like attack.
But as a portent of future terror, the Zazi case comes with caveats. Zazi was never, at any point, an immediate threat: British intelligence had intercepted his e-mails early on, and the FBI was tapping his calls and reading his e-mails before he ever began building bombs. Zazi seemed, in many ways, inept—constantly (and conspicuously) e-mailing his Al Qaeda contacts, pleading for advice and cash, and even buying bomb materials with a stolen credit card, sending red flags through the system. Al Qaeda barely supported his efforts once he was here, apparently not advancing him enough cash to buy hydrogen peroxide–based products for the bomb. And almost as soon as he was caught, Zazi began cooperating with police. The case leads some analysts to believe that Al Qaeda might not have the ability to effectively train and implant a homegrown terrorist. “This was an asset they didn’t normally have, an American who had no trouble getting back into the country,” said Ohio State University political-science professor John Mueller, who has argued since before Osama bin Laden’s demise that Al Qaeda is in serious decline. “He’s really a rich asset, and he’s willing to do this. You’d think they’d train him really carefully, and they didn’t.”
Zazi’s attempted attack nevertheless exposed weaknesses in the system. Ongoing interagency friction is one. When the NYPD heard about the FBI’s investigation into Zazi, detectives asked a sometime informant of theirs about Zazi, and that informant—local imam Ahmad Wais Afzali—tipped off Zazi that the authorities were asking about him (though it’s unclear that the imam knew exactly why). That tip gave Zazi enough time to destroy evidence that could have revealed how close he had come to successfully building a bomb (this summer, four other police detectives reportedly faced a grand-jury inquiry into the leak).
Regardless of what Zazi was really capable of, many analysts believe the next attack might be a lot like what Zazi had in mind—something like the London bombings. We’ve all heard the facts: No Muslim terrorist has successfully exploded a bomb on U.S. soil. Statisticians say there is a one in 3.5 million chance of being killed by a terrorist here. It is as likely, Mayor Bloomberg likes to say, as being struck by lightning. But of course, we’re all too aware of the asterisk dangling over that.